Making the case for community colleges

By Bill Knief

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While the New Mexico Higher Education Department continues to struggle to produce a coherent and evenhanded funding formula that addresses, among other issues, the unique mission of two-year colleges, a federal report to Cabinet Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was published in December that went a long way toward defining that very role.

Under the bland title “Committee on Measures of Student Success,” the report makes a strong case for acknowledging (and, by implication, rewarding) a wide range of student outcomes rather than graduation rates alone, arguing that, “…limitations in the data understate the success of students enrolled at two-year institutions and can be misleading to the public.” (Emphasis added.)

The report underscores the necessity of collecting accurate data across states that reflect not only time-sensitive graduation rates, but transfer rates of students from one institution to another, levels of developmental courses required to succeed in college, and the unique needs of non-traditional, part time students who have job and family responsibilities in addition to their coursework.

The report maintains that, “Two-year institutions play a unique role in America’s higher education landscape. Many do much more than prepare students to earn a post-secondary credential. For many students enrolled at two-year institutions, success may be transferring to a four-year institution or completing a few courses for retraining or career advancement. For the majority of these students, however, full-time enrollment may not be a viable option. And for some, the need for remedial coursework may delay their progress toward a degree.”

The report further acknowledges the broad diversity of students that two-year institutions serve, including “…students seeking new skills but not pursuing a degree; students working toward an occupationally focused certificate; students seeking to earn an associate’s degree; and students who want to earn credits and transfer to a four-year institution. Community colleges also enroll large numbers of students taking non-credit coursework that leads to specific workforce or industry credentials or that are offered as

contract training for specific employers….Since two-year institutions have multiple missions, the Committee acknowledges the need for multiple outcome measures of an institution’s success.” (Emphasis added.)

Graduation rates for full-time students, in other words, measure only a minority of students enrolled at UNM-Taos and other two-year colleges throughout the country, and in fact, according to the report, “At two-year institutions, more than half of all students typically attend part-time.” Moreover, with a policy of open enrollment, many UNM-Taos students require developmental courses to prepare them for college-level coursework. Shouldn’t part-time and college-prep students at UNM-Taos be included in the overall success assessment and funding formula of the institution?

Community colleges should no longer be treated like the orphan children of the higher education family, because, “Increasing the number of college graduates in the United States is critical to our nation’s economic growth and global competitiveness. Two-year institutions must play a pivotal role in increasing the proportion of American adults with a postsecondary credential. Over the past decade alone, undergraduate student enrollment at two-year institutions has increased by 26 percent, from 5.9 million to 7.5 million. Recognizing the importance of two-year institutions in meeting national goals to increase degree attainment among adults in the United States, President Obama called for five million more community college graduates by the year 2020. To achieve these ambitious goals, students and families, policy makers, and researchers need more—and better—information about student progression and completion at two-year degree-granting institutions…”

Until this data can be collected and quantified, any funding formula will fall far short of supporting the valuable contributions community colleges make to our society. To read the full report, please search Committee on Measures of Student Success report to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

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